Marketing

Should brands on Twitter talk like teenagers?

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On May 28, a rogue account masquerading as the official Twitter presence of RC Cola (@OfficialRCCola) was suspended. The account joined Twitter in April of 2017, and had developed a following that surpassed the official RC Cola account. Recently, the account fooled its followers into believing that it was taking potshots at the Trump administration, and then subsequently trolled a user who criticized their approach with an image of Spongebob Squarepants (this meme implies the target is unbearably stupid). Their snarky response likely generated enough interest from Doctor Pepper Snapple Group, which owns RC Cola, to shut the parody account down.

The RC Cola parody account was able to fool its users into believing that it was engaging in a form of brand communication that has swept social media over the last 3-4 years, wherein brands talk to their audiences in the jokey, detached voice of meme-sharing teenagers. What’s noteworthy about the story is that this voice has become so ubiquitous that we don’t even bat an eye when multinational companies speak to us as though they are our stoned teen BFF. We’re so accustomed to it that lots of people wondered why the official RC Cola account had been suspended. It’s not unusual to see brands goofing around with their followers using insular meme-speak of young Twitter users.

The patient zero responsible for the spread of this voice is Denny’s Diner. Here’s a snapshot of the last few weeks of their Twitter output:

The recent examples above typify a silliness that Denny’s has employed for at least three years. Amber Discko was there from the beginning. She describes the inception of this strategy not as a conscious effort for the brand to get weird on social media, but rather a courageous handing over of the reigns of brand’s social media communications to a younger person who knew how to speak the language of the brand’s target customers. Discko says she wasn’t hired because of her experience as a strategist and a community manager so much as for her personality, which was tuned into the voices coming from Tumblr, a platform that Denny’s wanted to inhabit.

“When I came into the job they were just launching the Tumblr [account], and I had been a Tumblr user since I was a teen, so it was easy for me to understand how the platform works before we posted anything on it,” says Discko. “I got into the trenches and observed the types of people who liked Denny’s, and what they were talking about.” Determined to figure out a unique voice for the diner chain, Discko’s team considered that Denny’s is open 24 hours. It’s cheap. It’s a place to hang out for people who can’t go to a bar.” In other words, it’s perfect for teenagers with time to kill. Discko, being not terribly far removed from this life stage herself, was able to zero in on the subculture’s insular slang, memes, jokes and hyper-ironic point of view. “It made sense that we were silly on social,” says Discko, who has gone on to ply her understanding of community at Tumblr itself, along with Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign and most recently, in launching a not-yet-fully-operational self-care app called Aloe.

“I would follow our fans, watch what they were doing, and give them content to share.” For example, Discko noticed that a bunch of the brand’s followers were sharing nostalgic lyrics and imagery from the pop punk she enjoyed as a teenager in the ‘00s, so she began courting this sub-sub-niche. The fans went wild for this kind of intimate communication with a handful of followers. The idea that this massive household-name chain of diners taking time to goof around with a few teenagers on Twitter made them feel connected to the brand.

All of this may sound par for the course in 2017, but that’s only because Denny’s and a few other pioneering consumer goods brands paved the way. Most consumers have barely noticed this monumental shift in the way that brands talk to them. Beginning in 2014, A Twitter account began poking fun at this phenomenon by calling out brands who use the teen slang term “bae” (the account gave up in mid-2016, perhaps overwhelmed by their mission).

Will Zweigart is the creator of Cash Cats, a user-generated collection of wealthy, snarky felines that’s drenched in the kind of ironic imagery and meta speech that internet-obsessed teenagers love. By day he serves as an editorial director for the marketing agency imre, consulting brands who, ironically, find themselves competing for our attention amidst that same stream of cat memes.

Zweigart argues that by this point, most brands are learning how to dial back their “thirstiness” (i.e their perceived desire to appear as cool) on social media, especially if quirky behavior is not part of their DNA.

“There are only two ways for brands to be relevant in social—be helpful, and/or be entertaining. That’s it. Being boring is not an option, so we see brands slowly expanding their safe zone to find the right balance. Given how quickly things move, your team needs a quick wit, flat approval process and an understanding of culture’s rapidly changing norms.”

Many consumer brands have everything to gain by coming across as our buddies, so we shouldn’t expect the trend of chatty, personal brand communications to slow down. However, brands will have to be smarter about how they position themselves in order to avoid coming across as pandering. Nobody wants to hang out with someone who’s trying too hard to fit in.

Denny’s didn’t find success by consciously attempting to ape the way their fans talked, they simply let a bunch of genuinely smart, witty young people take over, and let them take some absurd chances. One gets the impression that these tweets aren’t planned out months or weeks in advance. They’re spontaneous, and they seem as though they were crafted by a real person with a genuine sense of humor who doesn’t just want to sell a bunch of Grand Slam breakfasts. In an age of increasing ad blocker usage, where audiences have more power than ever to be choosy about whether they want to spend time receiving brand messages at all, brands will need to work harder than they did at the start of this trend. “Brands talking like Twitter teens” worked in 2014 because nobody was doing it at the time. But by now it’s ubiquitous. The effectiveness of this tactic is already on the decline, so social media managers will need to find new ways to impress and relate to their younger customers. That means hiring smart young people to pull it off, trusting their instincts when want to take a risk, and not taking it personally when they tell you that “on fleek” isn’t cool anymore.

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